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10 Memorable Threads from 2010

• December 28, 2010 • 12:00 PM

Miller-McCune’s Web editor loves all of his progeny, especially these — and these, and those.

The short days in the Northern Hemisphere produce a peculiar journalistic crop, the Top 10 list. At Miller-McCune.com, we’re not immune to the pull of that chestnut, but the wonk rays so prevalent here force a mutation. Instead of a Top 10 list, here’s 10 for 2010, stories that are popular and memorable but without the baggage of perfection as determined in a year-end frenzy of instantaneous deliberation.

Of course, some of the best movies never get nominated for Oscars, and so it is here. We’ll make apologies to stalwarts like Jai Ranganathan (of Curiouser & Curiouser fame) or Lewis Beale (of the popular Moving Pictures blog) offline.

Whether they go home with a gold statuette or not, these remain stories worth a second look, or if you haven’t seen them before, a first. And while English orthography pretty much dictates this appears in serial form, given our list’s egalitarian roots this is not a ranking.

Crying over spilt petroleum
By far the biggest environmental story of the year was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that galvanized a number of the Miller-McCune’s writers to examine some counter-intuitive solutions. First off the bat was staff writer Melinda Burns. She fired up her (solar-powered) Rolodex to call on people who had worked on past major oil spill cleanups. They, in turn, wondered if the need to be seen doing something, anything, might cause more harm than doing nothing (which means holding off until data, experience and research could be tapped). Melinda’s Hippocratic opus, “Oil Cleanup Cure May Be Worse Than Disease,” generated a cottage industry of ire from those who feel good intentions trump good practices. Some of those more outré practices were examined by Joan Melcher in her “Mopping Up: From Hairballs to Penguin Transit.”

Over at the Idea Lobby — which frankly could be cited for superior work in every category as we go forward — Emily Badger noted the sudden desire for Big Government to whisk away all the travail in “Oil Spill Outlines the Limits of Government.” She wrote that despite BP and Co.’s ham-fisted efforts to cap the flow, Americans were unlikely to want to spring for full-time regulatory oversight and disaster-response teams — for the deadly spill or most any other private-industry disaster — once those memories faded. And did we say ham-fisted? It wasn’t for lack of outside advice. Michael Haederle’s “Standing in Line to Cap the Spill” looked at the hoops even proven innovators had to jump through to offer aid in the heat of disaster.

If Oil’s Not Well
Oil spills are an acceptable price to pay, it appears, because the world economy runs on oil. Several stories from 2010 looked at other vital commodities and how the world will, or has, coped with their shortage. In a series of articles capped by “Peak Wood: Nature Does Impose Limits,” solar guru John Perlin reviewed the trajectory of wood as a fuel/building material and the reckoning that came when easily accessible forests were stripped.

Then there’s phosphorus, a commodity necessary to life itself, but one increasingly difficult to gather, as Melinda Burns revealed in “The Story of P(ee).” Phosphorus in mineral form can still be obtained, at a price, but the brave new world will probably see greater recycling of a precious material we currently, ummm, flush away.

And since we’re all about solutions here, we couldn’t end this sojourn on shortages, so we offer David Rosenfeld’s “Can Mining Provide a Renewable Energy Future?” as a renewable way of turning lemons (torn up old mining sites) into lemonade (homes for solar arrays).

Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires
In a five-part series, Sue Russell examined how technology and sociology are being tapped to douse the growing problem of wildland fires. This war waged from Southern California to Greece, from Australia to Russia, is almost as complex as the infernos themselves. Innovative computer mapping tools advance, as do airborne imaging techniques that can look straight through black smoke for views of emerging dangers no firefighter ever sees. However, some crews battle blazes on bulldozers older than they are, and funding is tight all around. Still, the breakthroughs keep coming. To sample the series, start at the first story, “The Fires Down Below: ‘Look-Down’ Technology.”

Give a Man a Fish Department
We’re not a horticulture site (although we grow a mean agapanthus), but 2010 saw Miller-McCune link the worlds of agriculture and policy in a meaningful way. For example, our former fellow Elisabeth Best offered us a compelling look at how seed aid — yes, planting seeds — to disaster areas can go terribly awry if thoughtfulness and local conditions are ignored. “Making Seed Aid Blossom” proved especially useful as the world tackled the quake in Haiti and floods in Pakistan.

The ravages of plant disease set the chessboard for Chris Fedor’s “Rethinking the Sandwich: the Globalization of Wheat Rust,” which called for reintegrating so-called “orphan crops” into the world’s family meals.

And while we’re extolling flora, we recommend Sam Kornell’s “Marijuana, Dark Horse Savior of California Agriculture.” The Golden State rejected legalizing it, but as Kornell suggested before the vote, legalized marijuana crop wouldn’t solve all of California’s agricultural woes, but it might still keep the state in the green.

Nothing Up My Sleeve
“Charmed” got it wrong — there aren’t that many female magic-users. In “Why Have Women Magicians Vanished?” Pitzer prof Peter Nardi — later to reappear as the chef in our Skeptic’s Café — listed the reasons conjured up for the gender gap in research he conducted with wand-wielders of both sexes.

And on the subject of appearances, or rather disappearances, we offered two cautionary tales this year about hazards of the silicon revolution: Melinda Burns’ “Digital Disappearance” — never has the world historical and cultural record been more accessible, or more fragile – and John McKinney’s “Don’t Throw Away Your Paper Maps Just Yet.”

Voyage of the Kiri
Ecologist Kristian Beadle’s blogging during trip from the California border south along Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and beyond — he’s in Oaxaca now — earned strong reader approval as he mixed his personal narrative with observations about sustainability achieved and denied. Two entry points for newbies might be “The Wealth and Decline of Mangroves” and “The Success of Vizcaino’s Fishing Cooperatives.” And while his stated travels have concluded, Beadle is still producing for us, as his look at the aftermath of the Cancun climate talks will soon demonstrate.

Inside Your Head
Staff writer Tom Jacobs has produced a consistently excellent body of work for Miller-McCune since day one, much of it dealing with the mind and why we human beings act so, so … human. Much like Idea Lobby, it’s tough to pick out just one or two pieces to spotlight, so let’s go for a longer piece about a reimagining of the hierarchy human needs, “Maslow’s Pyramid Gets a Makeover.”

Red and Blue and Read All Over
Politics is always a favorite topic for the chattering classes, and we’ve shown to our own satisfaction that the United States, for one, is as divided as it’s been for years — although that may only be among the chatterers. For example, as Lee Drutman points out in “Political Leapfrog Hops Over Most Americans,” our representatives have beaten us to the extremes. Tom Jacobs, meanwhile, followed his 2009 article on presidential popularity by looking at how Barack Obama’s predicted decay was playing out in “Mr. President, You’re Right on Schedule.” And it wouldn’t be politics as unusual around here if we didn’t have at least one piece from Idea Lobby, so we offer “Office Seeks Higher Office” in homage to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

The D List
Richard Korman is a journalist of many talents — his piece about air safety is one of best performers day in and day out — but when he revealed the man within the scribe, he really shined. In “What I Could Tell Tiger About Divorce” Richard combined current research on family dynamics with his own story of the changing complexity of American family life.

There’s another D-word out there that makes people squirm: diversity. In a first-class piece, James Badham addressed how “Real Diversity Means We’re Not All the Same,” and what that might mean in the classroom and the office.

What We’re All About
Miller-McCune believes in applying honest data to real problems to point toward genuine solutions. In that vein, Matt Kettman’s “Outsourcing Science to Keep Results Untainted” was an important piece about how governments — U.S. states in this example — can outsource their research needs to third-party nonprofits and develop smarter policy as a result.

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Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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